CHARLOTTESVILLE — Bronco Mendenhall learned early in his tenure as Virginia’s football coach that an opening-game opponent, even from a lower division, was not to be taken lightly.
With scheduling changes tied in part to the unveiling of the ACC Network, the Cavaliers will open this season with a trip to Pittsburgh, an opponent that has won the last four games in their series.
After being stunned by Richmond in Mendenhall’s first game as head coach, Virginia handily defeated William and Mary and Richmond in the Cavaliers’ next two openers.
“There is a different level of excitement and urgency from Week 1, I would say, that is quite different from when you don’t play a league game until week four or five,” Mendenhall said.
He said he watched with his family Saturday night as Florida rallied for a 24-20 victory over Miami.
“Really, in the opening game, as much as we would like to say we know where we stand, you really don’t until you play,” Mendenhall said.
There were few revelations in a depth chart released by Virginia. At one of the running back positions, sophomore Wayne Taulapapa was listed on the top line ahead of PK Kier and Lamont Atkins.
That is a spot previously filled by Jordan Ellis, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year as a senior.
“Wayne is the most trustworthy and the most versatile to this point and has had the most production,” Mendenhall said.
“Others will be capable and will play, and the production might shift in the game to where we’re wondering ‘how did that just happen?’ ”
Quarterback Bryce Perkins rushed for 923 yards last season and no other returnee had more than 80 yards. Taulapapa did not have a rushing attempt but played in eight games and logged one tackle on special teams.
Likely first-time starters include Nick Grant, a junior cornerback from Spotsylvania whose activity is certain to increase following a preseason injury to William Fleming graduate Darrius Bratton, who suffered a torn ACL in preseason practice and is lost for the season.
“Nick is a relentless worker [who] just simply wouldn’t relinquish the spot,” Mendenhall said. “He’s the most consistent worker currently on our team and he’s made the most plays at corner.
“Whoever we throw in the mix to stack against him, he just seems to outperform them over and over.”
A player who did not show up on the depth chart but apparently will be available is Dejon Brissett, a graduate transfer from Richmond who had 63 receptions in 2017 before suffering a knee injury last year.
“He’s currently available,” Mendenhall said. “He’s coming off an injury, so the reason he wasn’t listed was uncertainty. But if he’s available, which we’re hopeful he will be, he’ll play and he’ll play a lot. He’s done a really nice job in fall camp.”
It has been speculated that place-kicker Brian Delaney might take over punting duties this season but walk-on Nash Griffin, a high school teammate of Virginia basketball star Kyle Guy, could get the job. Mendenhall said that Griffin had been placed on scholarship.
“I’ve always preferred to have a kicker and a punter,” said Mendenhall, aware that Delaney would willingly handle all duties. “But, in case he gets beat up or roughed up or has an off day, that means all your kicking will have an off day.”
Chuck Davis, who returned 19 punts last season, is still looking for his first college reception. He is listed No. 2 behind Joe Reed at one of the receiver spots.
“Chuck catches everything,” Mendenhall said. “He has from the beginning of camp. He also has for a number of years. While others have flashed, his consistency and the ability to be assignment-sound has listed him at that spot for now.”